In the larger scheme of Pakistan’s foreign policy, the Financial Action Task Force reversal is a storm in a teacup because we have been on this ‘grey list’ before despite which our economy has grown and is unlikely to be negatively affected now. But the mishandling of this issue is symptomatic of our policymaking failure of doing too little too late. This is the more serious concern. As a result, we find ourselves in a virtual state of siege.
This situation requires a course correction that is resolute, rational, objective and far-sighted. Pakistan’s decision-makers must make a realistic assessment of the global and regional realities in order to formulate pro-active rather than reactive policies that pre-position us to leverage opportunities and overcome challenges, in order to protect and promote our national interests.
At the global level, the reality is that the world is now in a new Cold War between a declining US determined to prevent the Chinese and the Russians from challenging their supremacy. This is clear from Washington’s latest National Security Strategy and Nuclear Posture Review. This great power competition overrides all other American considerations, including relations with smaller powers like Pakistan.
As a result, in the South Asian regional context, Pakistan is being impacted by the American strategic alliance with India to contain China. Washington has not only ‘de-hyphenated’ its relations with Islamabad and New Delhi, but has encouraged New Delhi’s ambitions of becoming a regional hegemon. Whereas the de-hyphenation is unrealistic, given the disputes between Pakistan and India, American backing for India’s regional pre-eminence violates a Pakistani red line. It is this reality that we have to accept instead of making inane claims about the ‘70-year-old Pakistan-US friendship’ which, as the Americans would say, is not worth a can of beans now. The simple fact is that there is now no strategic convergence between Pakistan and the US. To compound this problem is the American failure to militarily defeat the Afghan Taliban for which it uses Pakistan as a convenient scapegoat. Hence the lament of some Pakistanis that we are isolated, that we have failed to project our narrative and that we somehow need to accommodate the US as well as India and Afghanistan, will not change this reality.
We need to recognise that the divergence with Washington is out of Islamabad’s control because it is the result of the changing global power equation. Moreover, it is the superpower confrontation, especially with China, that has catapulted India as an American strategic partner, again not due to any failing on Pakistan’s part. Short of appeasement of the US and India, the price for which would be surrendering our sovereignty and security, Pakistan will be compelled for the foreseeable future to engage in damage limitation, ensure its deterrence capabilities and build on other options. This is where we would need to be more proactive.
Fortunately, our relations with China are already on an upward trajectory, with CPEC as a practical manifestation. But there is tremendous room for these relations to grow further in every domain — security, economy, trade, technology, education among a host of others. The problem is that in most cases there is no implementation. This will need to change through a whole of government approach. Moreover, we also need to do some hard bargaining with China for access to their latest weaponry, technology and investments based on the argument that the challenges we are facing are due to the Indo-US strategic partnership against China. Therefore, it is in Beijing’s own interest to step up its strategic cooperation with Pakistan to an even higher plane.
The opening with Russia is positive but in real terms the benefits have been pretty meagre so far. There is a need for some hard-nosed but realistic barging with Moscow for tangible gains — starting from economic and trade areas, and moving towards greater military and security cooperation. While this will be a long haul, there is certainly room for developing a strong partnership with Russia. A clear opportunity is in the area of counterterrorism cooperation and working for a political solution in Afghanistan, where our interests converge.
We also need to move with a clear plan to deepen cooperation with powerful neighbouring countries like Iran, for instance overcoming the hurdles in the way of the gas pipeline issue despite American pressure. We also need not be constrained in this regard by our relations with Saudi Arabia which is already a reliable regional partner. This would be a delicate balancing act but the fact remains that Pakistan is of vital importance to both countries and we should leverage this importance.
Even in the case of the US, Pakistan retains considerable leverage, at least at the tactical level, but we have been reluctant to use it. For instance, without Pakistan’s cooperation, the US would lose ground and air links to its besieged forces in Afghanistan as well as access to critical intelligence. Moreover, no political solution in Afghanistan is possible without Pakistan’s assistance, an option that now finally seems to be emerging with President Ghani’s offer to the Taliban. This leverage should be used to change America’s negative behaviour towards Pakistan, release Pakistan’s blocked Coalition Support Fund of $14 billion and, most importantly, to close down Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan camps in Afghanistan.
These objectives need to be pursued in a proactive grand strategy, involving all stakeholders who must be on the same page instead of working in silos. We also need to stop being reactive and lurching from one crisis to another. Unless we do this, we will continue to remain in a state of siege.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 11th, 2018.